After a mis-firing season in New Orleans, Steven Adams is bouncing back.
In pre-season games so far, basketball's "Aquaman" has averaged an encouraging 11 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists in just 24 minutes a night. Of course Adams' play has never been just about raw numbers and, for those who've watched, he's looked at his screen setting, offensive rebounding best.
That's no coincidence, since the skill set which he learned and refined from working with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma is exactly what made him appealing to Memphis. The team, whose mantra in the late 2000's became "grit n grind", is a great fit for a physical, heart on sleeve, "old school" centre like Adams. There's no sign yet if he'll look to break his career record of one made three point shot, but the 27-year-old is entering his "prime years" and will try to make enough noise in his new home as he looks for at least one last big contract in the NBA. These early signs show they may both be able to help each other.
After exiting the playoffs in the first round last year, the Grizzlies have retooled their team around young superstar Ja Morant, who finished his short playoff debut with elite averages of 30 points and eight assists. The electrically athletic Morant has been dubbed by many as "Westbrook 2.0", and by pairing him with Adams, the 2017 MVP's unheralded pick n roll partner, and the lean, defensive, Jaren Jackson Jr, Memphis will be hoping for some deep playoff runs of their own.
They'll face stiff competition though from the rest of the Western Conference, and none more than Russell "Westbrook 1.0" with his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers, lead by Lebron "Space Jam 2.0" James and Anthony "I was also in Space Jam" Davis are somehow frontrunners to win their conference while also apparently claiming underdog status due to an early exit last year (primarily because of injuries) and a semi-new roster. It doesn't really make sense, but then neither does the incredible longevity of Lebron's career. The "Evergreen one" is closing in on fellow Laker Kareem Abdul Jabar's career record of 38,387 points. Passing it would be a staggering achievement and, if combined with a fifth personal championship, will once again ignite basketball's most exhausting debate over whether he or Michael Jordan is the sports greatest player.
Lebron arguably still needs that fifth ring to be in the conversation, and casual fans might be surprised to find that standing in his way is a team whose general manager is a Kiwi.
While Adams, Lydia Ko, Israel Adesanya, and Scott Dixon can rightly lay claim to being New Zealand's most high profile international athletes, one unfamiliar name might very well be more important this year in American sport - Rangitoto alumni, Sean "only 90's NBA Kiwi" Marks.
Marks, a two time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs (one as player, and one as assistant coach), had an 11-year playing career in the NBA as a role-player and journeyman with humbling stats of 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds. This makes him one of the greatest New Zealand basketball players of all time, and he was inducted into the Kiwi Hall of Fame in 2017. Sure those numbers are low, but the most important one is 11 years. For comparison, Adams, the country's greatest player, is just beginning year nine.
And make no mistake, averaging almost 3 points a game in the NBA is hard. Especially as a power forward during the greatest era of power forwards. Marks sprightly frame was trading elbows with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, and Chris Bosh, not to mention increasingly taller small forwards such as Kevin Durant and a just coming into his prime Lebron James. He averaged 10 minutes per game the year his team won a championship, and that should earn any true fans respect.
When Marks became GM of the Brooklyn Nets, it surprised many but he set about rebuilding the organisation and team in such a way that Durant, fresh off his second title and Finals MVP, left Golden State and signed with the Nets in free agency. He was joined by fellow superstars Kyrie Irving, and 2018 MVP James Harden. Last season they were a Durant big toe away from knocking out eventual champions Milwaukee, and are now leading favourites for the 2022 title.
That of course will depend on Marks ability to handle the temperamental Irving who so far is one of the few NBA players to remain unvaccinated. Should he resolve the situation, and his team go all the way, then New Zealand would be able to celebrate its first ever NBA executive of the year.
* James Nokise is a New Zealand comedian and a 30-year fan of the NBA.